The New Fourth Estate

I recently read that today’s youth can’t determine whether or not a story is factual or fictional. Some of this no doubt is because there is just too much information available and there is no consequence of disseminating false information. I had an interesting conversation with a smart, older millennial recently and she didn’t know the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) once required holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance in a manner that was honest, equitable and balanced. The policy was called the Fairness Doctrine and its intent was to ensure viewers were exposed to a diversity of viewpoints. The FCC eliminated the Doctrine in 1987 and some believe its demise played a role in an increased level of party polarization.

Fast forward to 2016. We now have a President-Elect who tells outrageous falsehoods, (on TV no less), and then claims he didn’t say them. We have his surrogates who lied repeatedly during his campaign and continue to do so. We have Scottie Nell Hughes, Trump supporter and CNN commentator, who recently said “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.” (Evidently, there’s no such thing as proper grammar either.) She followed that outrageous comment with “people believe they have the facts to back that [Trump’s tweets] up.” WHAAAAAAAT? No. Believing you have facts is not the same as well…ACTUALLY HAVING THE FREAKIN’ FACTS!!!

I believe if our democracy is to survive, we must find a way to once again agree on facts. Not on what to do with those facts–I’m not that delusional. Can’t we at least though, find a way to agree that the earth is round, it revolves around the sun, the gravitational pull of the moon causes tides, and climate change is real. Okay, okay, I know that last one is a bridge too far for now, but one can hope.

The media has been referred to as the Fourth Estate, but I wonder if it still holds that place. I offer that rather, money is the new Fourth Estate and the media (legacy media as some now call it) should be lumped in with bloggers and social media in the Fifth Estate. After all, Wikipedia defines the Fourth Estate as “a societal or political force or institution whose influence is not consistently or officially recognized.” Ever since the Citizens United ruling, the power of money has been exponentially increased. It buys access, which buys influence, and ultimately, buys votes. Yes, we still have the potential power of the individual vote, but that power only works if the voters are well-informed and then actually vote!

Amazing, isn’t it, in this time of incredible access to information and connectivity, we are less well-informed and truly connected than ever? We are bombarded with “breaking news” 24/7/365 and scandals are stretched out until the next one comes along. Not only do we have a dizzying array of sources for our unvetted information, but, complicated algorithms increasingly tailor the “news” to our liking. Google and other search engines, along with all the forms of social media have no doubt, contributed immensely to our country’s polarization. Yes, a person can still be well-informed if they really work at it, but now, they can think they are but in reality, only be getting news that validates their viewpoints irrespective of the truth. Who should arbitrate what is “real” news? How do we determine what is actually factual? Maybe when teaching our kindergarteners how to read, we need to teach them how to differentiate fact from fiction. It will be a long process, but we cannot afford to ignore the need.

As we learned during this presidential election, if people don’t have faith in the legacy media, its influence is greatly reduced. And, I doubt anyone would argue that social media and Internet “news” sites had a real impact on the election. Interesting that Trump and his supporters frequently throw the accusation of “media bias” at legacy media, but seem to give free rein to the entirely unfettered, unvetted world of social media. One thing is for sure, the days of Walter Cronkite reporting the “way it was” once each day without embellishment or sensationalism are long gone.

I’m generally an optimist and try to remain hopeful. I’m not one of those who since the election, is predicting the end of civilization as we know it. Our nation is resilient and the pendulum swings both ways. No doubt though, we’ve witnessed a wide ass swing this time. How long it will take to swing back and what damage will be done in the meantime has yet to be seen. But, I do worry that if we can’t get back to agreeing that facts and truth exist and they aren’t the same things as opinions, we are in trouble. And, if we don’t have a functioning, effective media that the people trust to give them those unbiased facts, our very democracy is at risk. A free press is after all, one of the freedoms that sets us apart form so many other countries around the world.

A fully functioning press is dependent however, on a well-informed and engaged citizenry. A Democracy cannot function as a spectator sport. Therein lies the rub. We can’t just blame others for the current state of our politics and governance and walk away. We all have a solemn responsibility to engage. Thomas Jefferson said, “An informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy.” As hyperbolic as it may sound, I believe it is the key to saving our democracy.

Warning: School Choice Can be Hazardous to Your Community

Carol Burris, Executive Director of the Diane Ravitch’s Network for Public Education, recently wrote about the direction President-Elect Trump appears headed with education. “There are clear indications” she said, “that President Obama’s Race to the Top will be replaced with something that could be called ‘Race to the Bank’, as the movement to privatize education seems certain to accelerate.” Trump’s promise to redirect $20 billion in federal funds (most likely in Title I monies), is a good indication of that desire to accelerate. Of the redirect, Trump himself said, “Not only would this empower families, but it would create a massive education market that is competitive and produces better outcomes, and I mean far better outcomes.” Recent studies though, just don’t bear out those “far better outcomes” and although Congress previously considered redirecting Title I funds, they scrapped it with the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Nonetheless, Trump seems determined to press ahead as indicated today by his pick of Betsy DeVos, a forceful advocate for private school voucher programs nationwide, as his Secretary of Education.  And although his website claims that school choice is “the civil rights issue of our time”, the Nation’s leading public education advocate, Diane Ravitch writes, “school choice is not the civil rights issue of our time, as its proponents claim; it is the predictable way to roll back civil rights in our time.” Her words are born out by the fact that segregation in the United States is now the highest it has been since the early 1960s. And to that point, the Arizona Republic writes that vouchers, tax credits and charters are used “by those who least need help”, “siphon money from traditional district schools”, and “are thinly disguised workarounds that wealthy parents can use to keep their kids out of the district schools where students of color are in the majority.” Jeff Bryant, on educationopportunitynetwork.org, writes, “it’s hard to see how a system based on school choice – that so easily accentuates the advantages of the privileged – is going to benefit the whole community, especially those who are the most chronically under-served.” After all, we all know there are plenty of disadvantaged families who will likely never be able to access school choice options, partially because it really is schools’ choice. This reality plays out every day when commercial schools either don’t admit those students they don’t want or, weed them out early on.  The desire to not call attention to that truth may be part of the reason we’ve begun to see the rebranding of “school choice” to “parental choice.”

The real problem though is much more than semantics, but what school choice is actually doing to not only our district schools, but our communities as well. Julie Vassilatos, on chicagonow.com, writes that “choice” “quietly diminishes the real power of our democratic voice while it upholds the promise of individual consumer preferences above all else.” (It’s all about me.)  The picture she paints of school choice is this: no schoolmates in neighborhoods, children traveling several hours a day to/from school, and “very little political and residential investment in the heart of neighborhood communities.” The school choice model she contends, is “fracturing and breaking down local bonds among families and within neighborhoods.” Could it be that “divide and conquer” is what this is really about? Vassilatos seems to think so contending that, “Democracies require stable communities with strong institutions that are of, by, and for the community. Democracies are built on strong, stable localities.” School choice she claims, is gutting our communities and robbing our voices.

Meanwhile, Carol Burris points out that our Vice President-Elect, Mike Pence, shepherded such a time of gutting and robbing while Governor of Indiana. His voucher program created $53 million in school spending deficits in the last school year alone and the damage continues to this day. If school choice proponents get their way she warns, we could be looking at the same sort of disastrous full-frontal school choice implementation both Chile and Sweden are now trying to dig themselves out of.

We, as a nation, Burris says, need to ask ourselves two important questions. First, do we want to “build our communities, or fracture them?” Second, do we believe “in a community of learners in which kids learn from and with others of different backgrounds”, or do we want to further segregate our schools by race, income and religion. She contends that we cannot have both and that “true community public schools cannot survive school choice.” I agree with Carol, but it isn’t because the district schools can’t compete. Rather, it is because the deck is stacked against them and politicians and profiteers continue to pile on.

Robin Lake, of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which supports many school choice initiatives, said she believe there needs to be a focus on quality: “My fear is [that] a big ideological push for choice as an end, not a means, is a dangerous prospect. It’s not only dangerous for getting schools started that may not be effective, but it’s also dangerous for long-term politics.” Noah Smith on bloomberg.net, basically agrees, if from a different angle. “The evidence is clear that vouchers are a policy with underwhelming potential” he writes, and “if the U.S. cares about academic success, policy makers should focus not on turning the school system into a marketplace, but on reforming existing schools to improve their quality.

As Arthur Camins points out on HuffingtonPost.com, “there are better choices than school choice to improve education.” Unfortunately, those choices are not the path of least resistance for our politicians and our short attention spans make expediency a winning strategy. Too bad those who have no voice are the ones who will ultimately suffer the most.

Bitter Pill to Swallow

Emotions have run very raw in my household since Tuesday night and this is being played out across my community and across the country as evidenced by the protests in our major cities. Many of my friends have greeted me on the verge of tears and I’m watching them go through at least three of the five stages of grief: denial, depression, and anger.

I feel many of these emotions along with a small amount of relief, that at least the election is over. Of course, that sword cuts both ways. The election is over so we at least have an idea of what’s to come, but we also must face the reality that President-elect Trump is on the verge of being the most powerful man (some might say child), in the world. We also know that there is little possibility we’ll continue to move forward (at least for now), on the issues that we Progressives hold near and dear. How much damage can a President Trump and his GOP-led Congress and Supreme Court, do to the environment, to civil liberties, to international relations, and to world peace?

The truth is that the Left isn’t just grieving, we are viscerally fearful. How much of the rhetoric Trump spewed over the last year will turn into reality? And even if he doesn’t pursue his hateful agenda, how will others use him to further their’s (McConnell, Bannon, Giuliani, Gingrich, etc.?)

Those who supported Trump are telling us Liberals to get over it. Just as we, when Obama got elected, told them to do the same. I don’t remember hearing back then though, that anyone had concerns about Obama with the nuclear codes. That’s the big difference now. Trump’s campaign staff did after all, in the last week of the presidential election, take away his access to his Twitter account so he couldn’t tweet something that might further damage his ability to get elected. His campaign staff did not trust him to tweet, it is no wonder the vast majority of us don’t trust him with our nuclear weapons.

Nonetheless, the system that has elected the past 44 presidents of the United States, elected Donald J. Trump to be the 45th. No matter how devastated I am about it, he is our President-elect. And, I’ve made a choice to accept that fact. I will not forgive or forget the disdain he has demonstrated for the vast majority of Americans. Neither will I push aside my concerns for what damage he can bring not to just our Nation, but the entire world. I’ve also chosen to understand though, that we all helped him get elected. “Wait just a damn minute” you say “not me!” “I donated to Hillary, had her yard sign outside my home, canvassed for her, made calls for her, and voted for her.” But, I ask, were you ever glued to MSNBC to watch for the next outrageous thing Trump would say? Did you find yourself thinking that his supporters were either just “haters” or to stupid to know any better? I am guilty of both of those.

My decision to accept that he is our president-elect does not mean I am rolling over. Quite the contrary. Even though it might seem that the United States of America is less and less a place “of the people, by the people, and for the people, we are still are the greatest democracy in the world. It is not time to move to Canada or to throw our hands up in despair. It is time to turn our angst and anger into action. Write your elected officials at all levels or run for office yourself or support like-minded candidates who do. Donate to volunteer for organizations that work on behalf of causes you are concerned about and write letters to the editor to express your concerns. And please remember, with Hillary winning the popular vote by 395,595, Donald Trump does NOT have a mandate from the people. What he does have, is the title of President-elect, granted him by the Electoral College.

Through it all though, remember that blame is not constructive and hate is not who we are. The nation is divided for a reason and we must deal with that reason. I believe it is because we collectively haven’t been focused on solving the problems most negatively affecting our people. Flint, MI for example, still doesn’t have safe drinking water, the loss of manufacturing has left many without the hope for a better life, the education of our children of color lags, and college debt has made it very difficult for many to realize their American dream. Who is responsible for fixing these problems? Ultimately, it is up to all of us. After all, we elect representatives to, well…represent us. By either our support or our acquiescence, we give them their marching orders. As long as we continue to reward their performance with reelection, we’ll always get what we’ve always gotten.

I’ll close with the point that, it wasn’t “a Trump insurgency, but a Clinton collapse”) as Jonathan Webber coined) that elected him.” Hillary lost because she got 10 million fewer votes that Obama in 2012, and 15 million fewer than in 2008. That is probably the most bitter pill of all to swallow. But swallow it I must and then I will pick myself up, dust myself off, and rejoin the battle to keep the American Dream alive for ALL Americans.

Remember in November

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) just released a new report on states’ investments in their public schools. “Public investment in K-12 schools – crucial for communities to thrive and the U.S. economy to offer broad opportunity – has declined dramatically in a number of states over the last decade” reports the CBPP. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Arizona ranks 15th in the nation for the number of students enrolled in public K-12 schools, but 48th in per pupil spending, with state funding per pupil down 36.6%. In state dollars alone (per pupil), Arizona only provided 56.5% of the national average according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Public Education Finances: 2014 report released this year.

Greatly exacerbating the situation (especially moving forward) is the fact that Arizona is one of the five states having “enacted income tax rate cuts costing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars each year rather than restore education funding.” Nationwide, states made up 45% of their budget shortfalls between 2008 and 2012 with spending cuts and only 16% with taxes and fees. Governor Ducey has promised to cut income tax every year he is in office, continuing two decades of tax cuts that that will cost the state’s 2016 general fund $4 billion in revenue. He and the Arizona Legislature may blame the recession on Arizona’s budget woes, but “more than 90% of the decline in revenue resulted from tax reductions…the remainder is due to the recession. Adding to the problem is that the Federal education aid programs shrunk at the same time. Those cuts are critical given that one in four of Arizona’s children live in poverty and Federal assistance for high-poverty schools is down 8.3% since 2010. Federal spending for the education of disabled students is also down by 6.4%.

It should be no surprise, that Arizona has a huge teacher shortage and in fact, is ranked the third worst state in the nation to be a teacher. Arizona’s district schools started the school year with 2,041 teacher vacancies and four weeks into the school year 25 percent of those remained vacant and 22 percent more were filled by individuals not meeting standard teacher requirements. The CBPP reports, “While the number of public K-12 teachers and other school workers [across the nation] has fallen by 221,000 since 2008, the number of students has risen by 1,120,000. This translates to a national average for student-to-teacher ratio of 16:1 while Arizona’s is almost 23:1. In 2014, Arizona ranked fifth in the nation in annual population increase while fewer students were enrolling in teacher preparation programs and 23% of Arizona’s teachers will be eligible to retire by 2019. We are facing a crisis largely created by state lawmakers where districts are forced to make up for major state funding cuts by deleting positions; underpaying teachers; cutting back on professional development; combining classrooms; and using long-term, less-qualified substitutes. Research shows teacher quality is the most important school-based determinant of student success. For real achievement gains, recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers must be at the forefront of education policy, along with the funding that supports it.

Quality preschool and full-day kindergarten have been shown critical to improved outcomes throughout a child’s school years and life beyond, especially for those lower on the socio-economic scale. Arizona however, funds only half-day kindergarten and provides no support for preschool. One study of 15,000 children born between 1955 and 1985 showed that poor children whose schools received a 10% increase in per-pupil spending before they started school and maintained that increase over the 12 years of the students’ schooling, were 10% more likely to graduate from high school. They also were shown to have 10% in higher earnings and were 6% less likely to be poor as adults.

Proposition 123 provided $173 million per year through FY 2025, but the state is still the fifth highest in cuts (down 12.8%) in state-provided per pupil funding through 2017. Keep in mind please that Proposition 123 monies were largely provided by raiding the state trust lands fund, which exists to support stable financial resources for schools. It wasn’t new money, but funding already mandated by the people and adjudicated by the courts and then, it was only 70% of what was actually owed. Even so, it did provide a boost to district funding which is critical given that Arizona is one of roughly half of the states providing less per pupil than in 2008 and one of the only seven where the cuts are 10 percent or more. In fact, even with the Proposition 123 infusion, the CBPP reports that Arizona had a -.08% change in state formula funding per pupil. So, while one hand giveth (kind of), the other hand taketh away.

Of course, per-pupil funding isn’t the only kind of funding cut from our district budgets. Capital spending, that which is used to build new schools, renovate and expand facilities, and equip schools with more modern technologies, is also way down. Spending for capital requirements was down 37% across the nation between 2008 and 2014. In Arizona, the FY 2016 budget included cuts of $113,457,200 in district additional assistance (DAA) dollars (about $135 per student), when added to the prior year DAA cuts, equates to a total reduction of these funds by 83%. DAA monies are used for a combination of soft capital costs (classroom materials and supplies) and capital funding. As just one example, the State Facilities Board provided only two cents of every dollar (2%) of the statewide need for renovations and repairs between 2008 and 2012.

The good news is that almost three-fourths of Arizona voters say the state is spending too little on our K-12 public school students. Hopefully, you are one of them and you’ve already voted for pro-district education candidates, not those in favor of diverting taxpayer dollars to fund commercial schools. I say this not as a school choice “hater” (I do believe school choice has its place, it just shouldn’t be first place), but as a pure practical matter. Over 80% of Arizona’s students attend district schools and they deserve to have the vast majority of our resources and attention dedicated to ensure they succeed. We all need them to succeed not just because it is the right thing to do, but also because whether they are well educated or not, they are the future of our communities, our state and our nation. For all of us and those who come after us, I wish for a very bright future.

 

Government vs. Commercial

During his first inaugural address, President Ronald Reagan said “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Grover Norquist, of the “no new taxes pledge”, doubled down on this line of thinking with his goal to “to get [government] down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” This GOP focus on government as the problem helps explain why those out to kill district schools refer to them as “government” schools. After all, “government” is the problem so how can “government” schools be any kind of solution for America’s students?

Yet the truth is that there are great district schools, great charter schools, great private schools and yes, even top-notch home schools. Of course, there are bad examples of all these options. Each option is just one of the tools in our country’s educational tool kit. The most useful tool in the tool kit by far however, (as proven by the 94.3% of American students who use it), is our system of public district schools. Charter schools have been around for twenty-five years, yet the overwhelming “school choice” for American families is still district schools. There is a place for other school choice options, but it shouldn’t be first place. Not in terms of taxpayer funding and not in terms of our nation’s focus.

Most families didn’t make this choice because they had no other options. Rather, they chose to send their children to district schools because those are the schools in their communities, those are the schools that offer a more diverse experience with a wider array of extracurricular programs and, those are the schools that are locally governed and therefore provide recourse when it is needed. The “haters” can refer to these choice schools as “government” schools, but that doesn’t change the fact that for the vast majority of American students, they work. Our community public schools helped make America great and, they continue to be integral in keeping it that way.

For those who insist on referring to our district schools as “government” schools, I say “sticks and stones…”. Don’t be surprised though when I refer charter and private schools as “commercial” schools. After all, the vast majority of charter schools, whether for-profit or non-profit, are business entities. Non-profit doesn’t mean no profit is made or even, that the entity is operating for the common good. It just means that the entity has qualified for federal tax exemptions.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, there are many definitions of commercial. The first is “occupied with or engaged in commerce or work intended for commerce.” Then, there is “being of an average or inferior quality” or “producing artistic work of low standards for quick market success.” There is also, “viewed with regard to profit”, “designed for a large market”, “emphasizing skills and subjects useful in business”, and “supported by advertisers.”

Some of these definitions fit commercial schools better than others. We’ve all heard stories about the “fly by night” schools set up for “quick market success” but then fail their students. We also know that some charters are big chains “designed for a large market.” And, there can be no doubt that the corporate reformers with their mantra of “school choice” have been focused on “emphasizing skills and subjects useful in business” to ensure a trained workforce to meet their needs.

This focus on developing a trained workforce is just one step away from replacing the idea of citizens in our democracy with consumers focused on nothing more than what’s in it for me? This attitude helps drive the concept of “backpack funding”, where taxpayer dollars for education follow the student and the hell with those left behind.

An encouraging note though in a very crazy election year is that of young people’s response to Bernie Sanders’ campaign. As Harry Boyte writes on Moyers & Company, “championing public goods – from schools to parks, infrastructure to health provision – suggests a generation hungry for the commonwealth.”

I understand parents wanting to ensure the best for their child, but what about the rest of the children? John Dewey, arguably the most significant educational thinker of the 20th century said, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”

So, send your kids to those “commercial” schools if you want, my money is on our community district schools to prevail at both providing ALL our children well-rounded educations and, at helping ensure our democracy stays strong.

Partisan? You bet! My party is Public Education.

I am a big believer in the two-party system. Our system of government works best when all sides are heard and considered. That is most likely to happen when the power is balanced, forcing legislators to negotiate and compromise. Our founding fathers purposefully designed many checks and balances into our system and I believe our two-party system helps in that regard.

In Arizona, the Democrats must gain only two additional seats in the State Senate to reach parity with the Republicans and in my opinion that would be a very good thing. Then, our senators from both parties would be forced to work together in finding good compromises to solve the problems facing our state.

One of the biggest problems facing our state is the inadequate resources provided our district schools. Arizona is one of the nation’s leaders in promoting school choice and although 80-plus percent of our students choose district schools, resources continue to be siphoned away from these schools in favor of other options. Many of our legislators, largely the Democrats, get this. Several Republicans are also on board.

Friends of ASBA, a sister organization of the Arizona School Boards Association, publishes an annual voting record of our legislators. This “Friends of ASBA Educating Arizona” report shows how every Arizona legislator voted on high priority K-12 education bills in 2016. The bills are grouped into three focus areas: funding, vouchers and local control, and the voting record is based on whether the legislators voted with, or against the ASBA position.

I encourage you to click here for the report to get the entire story. As you go through the report, you’ll note 56 legislators received “extra credit” for their behind the scenes efforts on behalf of public education. This credit is noted by + signs and the maximum extra credit points awarded were +++. Below, I show the Republican legislators who voted with ASBA’s position more than two-thirds of the time. I’d like the percentages to be even higher, but 33 Republican legislators didn’t even have a score higher than 50%. I should note that four Democratic legislators, Rep Sally Ann Gonzales (57%), Rep Jennifer Benally (43%), Rep Albert Hale (57%), and Rep Juan Mendez (57%) did not meet my “two-thirds of the time voting with ASBA” threshold.

LD Senator % Representative % Representative %
1 Steve Pierce++ 67 Karen Fann+ 71 Noel Campbell 71
2 Christopher Ackerley++ 71
8 TJ Shope+ 71
15 Heather Carter++ 71
16 Doug Coleman++ 100
18 Jeff Dial++ 67 Jill Norgaard 63 Bob Robson++ 71
20 Paul Boyer++ 63
21 Rick Gray+ 63
28 Adam Driggs++ 89 Kate Brophy McGee++ 71

The legislators in the chart above have at times taken brave stances on behalf of our district school students. Those I’ve actually met with seemed sincerely intent on doing the right thing for our students. They have earned my respect.

It is never a good idea to be closed to the opinions and ideas of others, nor is it smart to vote straight party line without regard to the issues and how candidates lean on those issues. For incumbents, the voting record tells us where they stand on public education. For candidates who haven’t ever been elected, it is our duty to read and listen to what they say about where they stand. And oh by the way, it is not good enough for a candidate to say he/she is “for education.” If you want to be sure they support the efforts of the schools educating over 80 percent of our students, they must say they are “for public education.” Of course, this leaves the door open for them to be staunchly pro-charter, but at least there is a modicum of transparency and accountability for the taxpayer dollars provided charter schools unlike with private options.

No matter what problems you most want solved, there can be no doubt that the more our students are prepared to deal with them, the better off we will all be. In my opinion, locally elected, governing board-led, public school districts offer the best chance we have to ensure every student has every opportunity to succeed. That’s why I am passionately pro-public education and why that’s the “party” that most matters to me.

Just rearranging the deck chairs ain’t gonna cut it

Representing the AZSchools Now Coalition, Arizona’s 2016 Teacher of the Year Christine Marsh and I recently attended and spoke at a Classrooms First Initiative Council meeting in Phoenix. The Coalition consists of the Arizona Associations of: Education, Business and Education, School Boards, Superintendents, and Parent and Teachers. Also part of the coalition are the Children’s Action Alliance, Valley Interfaith Project, and Support Our Schools AZ. It was formed post-Prop 123 to provide focus to reinvesting in public schools as a way to boost student achievement.

The Classrooms First Initiative Council was established by Governor Ducey in January 2015 and charged with modernizing the school finance formula to ensure adequate funding is available for teachers and classroom instruction. The first of the two main events of this latest meeting was a presentation by Expect More Arizona on the Education Progress Meter. This meter has been accepted by virtually every education group, numerous community and municipality organizations, and 26 major business entities. It measures Arizona’s progress in eight areas to include teacher pay, preschool enrollment, 3rd grade reading, 8th grade math, high school graduation, opportunity youth, college going, and post-secondary attainment.

The other main discussion was about the proposals submitted by education groups for the Council’s consideration. In speaking for the AZSchools Now proposal, I advocated for additional resources to attract and retain high quality teachers in light of the both the current shortage as well as the some 26,000 eligible for retirement starting in 2018. Not only is the shortage critical, but teacher turnover is disruptive and expensive, costing as much as $50,000 to find and contract a new one. ADE reports we have almost 93,000 certified teachers in Arizona, but only 67,000 of them are working in the profession. Many of those who left would love to still be teaching, but were forced to seek employment that would better support their families. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median Arizona elementary school teacher salary is $40,590 while the national median is $54,120. Starting salaries are much lower, often in the $30,000-per-year range.) Even so, one of the changes under consideration by the Council is to eliminate the Teacher Experience Index. As you might guess, this index helps keep experienced teachers in our AZ classrooms and the Coalition believes eliminating it will only exacerbate the problem. If we want to ensure high-quality education, we must have high-quality teachers and that can’t be done on the cheap. With fewer teachers entering the pipeline and over 26,000 eligible to retire by 2018, merely “rearranging the deck chairs on Titanic” I said, won’t do anything to keep this “boat from sinking.”

I also spoke about the Coalition’s recommendation to consider adding a B-weight for poverty to the school finance formula. This is critical because statewide, 58 percent of our K-12 students are eligible for free and reduced meals and many deal with a multitude of poverty related challenges at home, greatly affecting their preparedness to learn at school. That’s why the Coalition believes it is one of the most significant steps needed to make the school finance formula more equitable and fair. We know these students typically face barriers relating to transportation, housing, and levels of support in their communities and families for which additional resources are needed to help them achieve success.

Christine also made a case for additional funding, but her impassioned plea was focused on ensuring reasonable classroom sizes so that no students fall between the cracks. She told of average student loads for AZ high school teachers of 170 students and said that makes it tough for teachers to give each student the individualized attention they deserve. (The National Center for Education Statistics’ reports Arizona has 1.1 million K-12 students, and just 48,358 full-time teachers making our student-teacher ratio almost 23:1 compared to the national average of 16:1. According to WalletHub, only California and Utah are worse.)

She also pointed out that a future President of the United States is in a K-12 classroom somewhere, and current events highlight the importance of our getting this right. Stating that yes, salary is an important factor to encourage teachers to stay in their profession, Christine said it is also important that teachers feel they have what they need to really make a difference. And although she wanted to focus on the needs of students, not teachers, she noted the reality of workloads on the ability to do the job. Even if, she said, she only assigns three writing assignments per week to her 160 students, and each of those papers only takes five minutes to grade, that can amount to over 40 hours of grading time per week, and that takes place outside of the classroom. As if illustrating this point, after she spoke to the Council Christine resumed grading the stack of student papers she had brought with her.

Chris Thomas, Lead Council for the Arizona School Bards Association, said Arizona has one of the most equitable funding formulas in the nation, but is not adequately funding the formula. He highlighted the need for reinstating the cost analysis for special education funding as a way to ensure costs to provide service to these students are adequately funded while not pulling funding away from other programs. Chris also made the point that in considering a new funding formula, transparency should be ensured for the use of all public funds. Sarah Ellis, a Flagstaff Governing Board member, spoke during public comments, reiterating the need for locally controlled funding and the continuation of desegregation funding. For the Flagstaff Unified School District she said, the desegregation funds exceed that received from Prop. 123.

I was encouraged by the questions asked by members of the Council as well as the number of attendees in the audience. There was standing room only and attendees had come from all over the state to participate. I was pleased to hear some Council members voice their concerns that viable solutions to the finance formula would not be possible without additional resources, including the Chair, Jim Swanson. One member did note the reality of convincing the state legislature of this reality, but Swanson indicated he is ready to take on those who may not agree with the Council’s eventual recommendations.

Overall, I was encouraged by the meeting. Although I would have liked the membership of the Council to be more representative of the K-12 population in our state (majority Hispanic), I found them to be actively listening and serious about finding the best solutions. I am also very encouraged about the AZSchools Now coalition. One of the Coalition members, Support Our Schools AZ and its subsidiary the Arizona Parents Network, is an example of the grassroots efforts that has blossomed during and since the post-Prop 123 battle. What is especially important about this development is that it involves mostly parents who are naturally fierce advocates for their children.

One such fierce parent is Alana Brussin, whose My Turn” op-ed titled Tying school success to vouchers is a sham was recently published by the Arizona Republic. Her piece highlights the reasons community district schools are the overwhelming choice of Arizona families, in spite of the best efforts of state leaders and other school privatization advocates.

Just as Mothers Against Drunk Driving turned the tide on the public’s acceptance of drinking and driving, I’m confident our fierce parents can turn the tide on the assault on community district schools and ultimately the students they serve. Every child deserves every opportunity to succeed and when that happens, we all succeed. It really is that simple.

When is a charter school a bad idea?

Hint: the answer is not,  “never.” It is a bad idea, according to education blogger Peter Green, “when charters disrupt and displace [district] public schools.” I would add that often, these district schools are the hubs of their communities so charters contribute to disrupting these communities as well.

Case in point is a new charter school (Legacy Traditional School) being built in Glendale, Arizona. Scheduled to open in time for the 2016/17 school year, the new campus will serve 1,200 K-8 students at the northeast corner of 67th Avenue and Thunderbird Road. Sounds good, right? Problem is, this school is being built within the boundaries of the Peoria Unified School District, within two miles of 10 of their “A” or “B” rated elementary schools (50 percent of PUSD’s schools are rated “A”, another 25 percent are rated “B.)  When PUSD has the capacity to serve the 1,200 students Legacy hopes to eventually attract, why is this school necessary, or even in the best interest of this community?When the charter school concept was first embraced back in 1988, it was as “a new kind of public school where teachers could experiment with fresh and innovative ways of reaching students.” In Cologne, Germany, Albert Shanker visited a public school where teachers made the critical decisions about what and how to teach and the school had students with a broad mix of abilities, family incomes, and ethnicity. He said charter schools could “reinvigorate the twin promises of American public education: to promote social mobility for working-class children and social cohesion among America’s increasingly diverse populations.” Shanker also believed charter schools should be unionized because of the critical role he believed unions played in democratic societies.

Unfortunately, today’s charter schools are an entirely different animal than Shanker envisioned. They are more autocratic (empowering management versus teachers) and more segregated (by race and income) than ever and only about 12 percent of charters provide their teachers union representation. No wonder an “astounding 24 percent of charter school teachers leave their school each year, double the rate of turnover in traditional public schools.”

They are now seen as “a vehicle for infusing competition and market forces into public education.” Whether intentionally or not, charters have served to re-segregate education to a level not seen since the 1960s. A side benefit for the corporate reformers was also no doubt, the weakening of teacher unions and therefore less democracy in our schools and communities. All this eventually brought us to where we are today. Instead of charter schools augmenting and serving as “laboratory partners to public schools”, they are now in direct competition for students and the dollars they bring. Make no mistake, today’s charters – whether they are for-profit or non-profit – are as much about making a profit, as they are about educating children.

What suffers from this “competition” mindset is the collaboration between schools, overall efficient and effective use of available education funding, the richness of the educational experience that truly diverse schools can bring, and the strong school climate vibrant teacher voices can bring. This diversity isn’t just valuable for our students of color, but for their white counterparts as well. Those students who’ve experienced more diversity will be more successful in the ever-increasingly global economy.

So, here we are. A brand new charter school is under construction, right in the middle of 10 excellent district schools with plenty of capacity. As Legacy Traditional School is a non-profit entity, I suspect the school is funded with a bond issued by the Phoenix Industrial Development Authority (quasi-private so the taxpayer is not on the hook.) Nonetheless, the Legacy charter will compete directly with PUSD for what are already too few maintenance and operation dollars. As for other for-profit charters, they’ll likely turn to SB 1531 signed into law during this year’s legislative session which, provides $100 million to provide collateral for lower interest rates on charter school project loans. When those charters default, Arizona taxpayers will get the bill. (Don’t even get me started on how the $100 million could have helped our district schools.) In either case, said Tracey Benson, of the Arizona School Boards Association, charter schools added will “build corporate assets – those held by privately operated charter schools – versus community assets – our local district public schools that add value to our cities and neighborhoods.”

I’m not a charter “hater”, I’ve seen some that serve a special niche and provide a valuable alternative. What I do hate is the narrative that charters are superior to district public education, that they ensure disadvantaged students have access to a “high-quality choice”, and that they save the state money…because that narrative is largely false. At the end of the day, over 80 percent of Arizona’s students attend district public schools and that should be our first priority for funding and support.

 

 

 

 

 

America Worst

On this Fourth of July, I find myself thinking about the future of our country and this year’s Presidential election. I won’t be worried if Hillary Clinton is elected; I believe she is uniquely qualified to lead our nation and will hit the ground running. As for the GOP presumptive nominee, Trump’s “America First” plan is better described as “America Worst.” He brags he will “make America great again, but his xenophobic, racist, isolationistic plan to do that will accomplish nothing of the sort and instead, exposes the worst about America. The dog-whistle phrases he repeats incessantly harken a return to a sort of white supremacy; a return to the “Father Knows Best” “good old days” as viewed by his supporters. What Trump and his supporters either don’t get, or don’t care to get, is that today’s global economy will never allow America to be both isolationistic and “great.”

One person who does “get it” is Secretary of Education John King. In a recent speech to the National PTA Convention in Orlando, Florida, he explained that in today’s working world, your boss may not look like you, your office-mate may not worship like you, your project teammates may not speak the same language as you, and your customer may not live on the same continent as you. “Today” he said, “cross-cultural literacy is another way of saying competitive advantage.” In other words, “diversity is no longer a luxury”, it is what will enable us to compete.

At the National School Boards Association Advocacy Institute last month, I was privileged to hear Secretary King in person. An orphan at age 12 and a product of New York City public schools, Secretary King knows first-hand what a difference opportunity can make. He was an impressive speaker and is obviously a passionate egalitarian, particularly when it comes to opportunities for our students. As articulated in a The Atlantic interview, “[diversity is] not just about trying to expand opportunities for low-income students, but really about our values as a country and to improve education outcomes for all students.”

Unlike Trump, Secretary King acknowledges the truth, that we can’t cut off America’s interaction with the rest of the world.  In fact, I’m fairly certain Trump doesn’t intend to pull all his overseas business ventures back — not his golf course and resort in Scotland, nor his seven hotels and as many Trump Towers all over the world; nor his clothing line manufacturing in China, Bangladesh, and Mexico. When questioned about why his shirts and ties were made in China, Trump said he’d love to make them here, but it costs too much. That’s right Donald, to maximize profits, you’ve gotta go where the labor is dirt cheap, the hell with unemployed American workers!

But I digress. The point I really wanted to make is that isolationism and segregation are two sides of the same coin. Just as pulling back and hiding within our own borders would hamper our business opportunities, our influence and our standing in the world, so does segregating our students by socio-economic and ethnicity hamper their abilities to function and succeed in the world. King calls it “being prepared for the diverse context in which we live and work.” After all, no matter how badly some wish our nation would return to a more homogenous (read “white”) population, it’s just not going to happen. Already, a full half of all K-12 students in the United States are “of color” and in Arizona, the Latin@ students in our schools are no longer a minority, but a majority. Not only does each of these children deserve the equal opportunity to succeed, but their white and/or more affluent peers need to learn how to relate to and co-exist with this majority.

The bottom line is that sticking our heads in the sand, sequestering our children with others just like them, constructing walls and closing borders is not a long-term strategy, it is kicking the can down the road. I suspect Trump actually understands this, but despite his claims that he is not a politician, he sure knows how to pander to his supporters. No matter how many times, or how loudly he touts it though, sticking our collective heads in the sand is not the way to make “America Great Again.”

We must remember what got us here in the first place: our democratic system of governance; our sense of fair play; and free, quality public education mandated for all.” These things don’t come cheap, but pI believe they are the reason the United States has been a beacon of opportunity for much of our existence. That’s why I believe America still is great with the caveat that we have much to fix if we want to stay that way. I also believe as citizens of this great country, we all have a duty to participate in the fixes. That participation can take many forms, but it cannot fall to just a few. Without the vast majority of us showing real concern and dedicated commitment to the common good, our UNITED States will not stay great. Without recognizing the potential in every child and promoting equal opportunity for them all, our nation will never be all that it can. A beacon of opportunity and an example of what’s possible when a people have control of their collective destiny.

Shining City on the Hill?

Yesterday, I was sitting on an American Airlines flight reflecting on my trip to our Nation’s Capitol. I was there to learn more about changes in federal laws impacting education, to network with other school board members from across the country and to advocate our members of Congress.

I had lived in D.C. twice previously, both times assigned there by the U.S. Air Force. This time though, I looked through a brand new lens. During my 22-year military career, I (appropriately) saw myself as a servant of the people. When I stood outside the White House grounds viewing the world’s most powerful leader’s residence, I felt a different call to duty. At that moment, I was reminded of our responsibility to ensure the right person sits in the Oval Office and is held accountable by each of us. Too much is at stake – from representing us to the rest of the world to controlling the launch of nuclear weapons. Not only do we have the right to vote, but a sacred duty to do so. Not primarily in our own interests, or to further our own ideology, but to ensure a more perfect union, a safer world, and a lasting legacy for all of our children.

To me, our visits to Capitol Hill highlighted the representative nature of our form of governance. At any given office we visited, there were often three groups in queue to advocate or lobby for their cause or industry. Sometimes those meetings were with the actual gracious lawmaker (as with Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick), but other times, we were relegated to a young staffer (as with Congressman Paul Gosar.) Either way, we and many others funneled through to influence and seek favors. But, since there will never be enough resources to accommodate all requests (many from opposite ends of the spectrum), winners and losers are assured and conflict is the natural by-product.

There were too, those visiting their nation’s Capitol to see democracy in action. Many of them school children with bar coded tour labels stuck to the front of their matching school logoed t-shirts. There was a man with a bullhorn whose message I didn’t quite get, but he was intent on exercising his first amendment rights even if no one cared to listen. I also noticed the youth that defines so many of those who live and work in the city. It occurred to me that although the average age of those in the U.S. Senate is 61 years old, the daily grind of running our country is in the hands of those with enough energy to meet the challenge.

So, what’s my takeaway? Am I more or less hopeful for the future? Guess I have to say I’m still somewhere in between. Spending time with fellow school board members – “volunteer” elected officials from around the country who had made the trip to D.C. to fight for their students – made be optimistic. Hearing their stories of the on-going war against public education in their states highlighted the hard fight still ahead. The countless young people everywhere I looked, made me optimistic. But, so were there signs everywhere that the world is becoming more dangerous by the minute with bollards, fences, metal detectors and armed law enforcement officers around every corner. Going to see the Senate in session, only to find them departed by the time I worked my way through all the security checkpoints, reminded me of a quote from Benjamin Franklin: “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.”

The one thing I know for sure after my visit is that our democracy is sacred and must be safeguarded. President-Elect John F. Kennedy quoted John Winthrop in 1961 when he said: “We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill – the eyes of all people are upon us.” I don’t think it is too extreme a stretch to say this year’s presidential election could decide whether that shine returns to its original luster, or is forever tarnished. It really is up to each of us, let’s hope we are up to the challenge.